Dino, the charming and lecherous Las Vegas singer, stops for gas on his way to Hollywood in Climax, Nevada. The oily gas station attendant is Barney Millsap, a would-be lyricist who writes pop songs with Orville Spooner, the local piano teacher. By disabling Dino's car, Barney contrives a scheme to have Dino sing one of their songs on an upcoming TV special. To entertain Dino, Barney contacts the village tart, Polly, employing her to pretend to be Orville's wife, Zelda, for a night. She doesn't like Dino, but does love being Orville's surrogate wife. Dino goes to a bar, where he meets the real Zelda, and they spend the night together while Polly spends it with Orville. Written by
Unjustly Maligned-Not Great but Far From a Disaster
Billy Wilder's career as a hitmaker ended with this for-its-time smutty sex comedy, yet it shows all of the flaws and strengths that once made him one of Hollywood's top directors and, for all its sexual innuendo, is really a very sweet film. Although Ray Walston is terribly miscast as small-town songwriter Orville J. Spooner, who hires a local prostitute (Kim Novak) to impersonate his wife (Felicia Farr) so he can use her to sell singing star Dino (Dean Martin) his songs, the other three stars are dynamite. Farr displays a crack sense of comic timing. Martin, one of Hollywood's most underrated actors, is dead on in a parody of his own image. And Novak gives the performance of her career as the romantic small-town slut trying to earn enough money to get her trailer out of the desert.
As with most of Wilder's films, all the cynicism and sex play mask a romantic heart: Polly and Orville begin to believe in her masquerade as his wife, until he kicks Dino out to protect her honor. The two develop a genuine affection for each other that transcends their brief sexual encounter.
At the time of its release, it was a major scandal, condemned by the Legion of Decency and disowned by United Artists. Now, it seems less shocking and ranks among the second tier of Billy Wilder's work. It's hardly as good as "Some Like It Hot" or "Sunset Boulevard," but never descends to the shoddiness of "The Front Page."
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